Last night I went to see Party, Tom Basden’s play which won a Fringe First Award last year in Edinburgh, which is currently running for a brief period at the Arts Theatre in London to coincide with its reinvention as a four-part series on Radio 4, beginning on Wednesday at 6.30pm.
The setup – five clueless studenty types meet in a garden shed to found a political party – has the sound of a potentially short skit in a larger show. That it works over such a length (75 minutes) and that I would gladly have sat through it if it had been twice as long is surely a testament to Basden’s writing.
The play opens with the characters attempting to draft a foreign policy by means of taking an exhaustive series of votes on whether they are in favour of or against, for instance, Armenia. They seem well-intentioned but hopelessly uninformed. Leading – and dominating – discussion is the self-important and increasingly tactile Jared (Jonny Sweet), a pedant who insists on the pronunciation of ‘abstention’ as ‘abstaintion’, believes Burma is “pronounced ‘Myanmar'”, and favours the party name “Gladios”. Forming the rest of the group are the perpetually warring Mel (Anna Crilly) and Jones (Basden), who is elected Foreign Secretary on account of his mother’s Welshness, idealistic secretary Phoebe (Katy Wix) and out-of-place Duncan (Tim Key).
The character of Duncan holds the key to the play. After fifteen minutes it becomes apparent that he has come to the meeting in the belief that it is in fact a party with cake (lemon drizzle) rather than a political party. A further revelation later on is unexpectedly heartbreaking in the context of a play that is heavy on laughs. In spite of his evident naïveté, Duncan is perhaps the least blinkered of the central characters. He’s certainly the least interested in getting involved in politics, which makes his eventual election as leader almost inevitable. Tim Key’s performance is quite remarkable. For the first few minutes of discussion he sits in the middle silently, resembling a benevolent if befuddled owl. The sheer range of his facial expressions is a thing of beauty, his presence on stage curiously magnetic. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has witnessed him as the capricious and suggestive questionmaster on BBC4’s We Need Answers. Any burgeoning filmmaker could do much worse than to train a camera on his face for the duration of the play, Zidane-style. It would produce a document of endless wonder. Duncan gets many of the best jokes too. He is in favour of designating white as the party colour purely on the basis that it will save money when it comes to producing promotional materials at his father’s printing shop.
The play makes some serious points about the state of politics today, if not in quite as incisive a manner as The Thick of It – about the disenfranchisement of the young, the bureaucracy that prevents the simplest of decisions from being made, the ultimate failure of democracy as exemplified by the election of the one person who is not politically engaged – but it would be a mistake to think that it places satire on a higher pedestal than comedy. Ultimately it’s about the jokes. Alistair McGowan, sitting in front of me, certainly seemed to enjoy it. The cast is uniformly excellent, though I’d love to have seen more of Nick Mohammed, a performer who merits more than the brief cameo he has as the only character who does understand a little about politics, something which, when it becomes apparent, leads to his immediate ostracism by the rest of the group.
The radio version promises much, though it’s a minor tragedy that many of the funniest elements will be lost in translation. I’m thinking of Sweet’s posturing and swaggering, the interlude where Key pours glasses of water for everyone, or the bit that made me laugh most of all, where Sweet, turning sheets on a flipchart, momentarily reveals the legend: “CELEBS WE KNOW: CHRIS BARRIE”. There’s still time to catch it in London if you’re in the area. Otherwise, keep your ears open.